Two citizens outside the Chancery Court building give their opinion on whether guns should be allowed in courthouses. Jimmie E. Gates
It may not be a gunfight at high noon at the OK Corral, but there is a gun fight in the Mississippi Supreme Court on whether chancery judges in Lowndes County have authority to ban firearms from courthouses.
On one side are the judges and on the other side are gun rights advocates, including the National Rifle Association.
The dispute is over a state law that allows individuals with an enhanced carry permit and firearm training to bring their firearms into a courthouse, but not into courtrooms. The question is whether judges can impose their own orders banning guns in courthouses in the wake of the state law?
In 2011, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law that allows those with enhanced carry permits who have voluntarily completed a safe handling and use of firearms course to carry their weapons inside a courthouse, but not inside a courtroom.
Chancery judges in the 14th Chancery District, which includes Lowndes, Clay, Chickasaw, Noxubee, Oktibbeha and Webster counties, filed an administrative order banning firearms within 200 feet of a courtroom door.
Firearm instructor Rick Ward, who has offices in Collins and Jackson, said he has an enhanced firearm carry permit but has been denied the right to carry his firearm in courthouses in the 14th Chancery District.
Ward, through his attorney Thomas Payne, argues that judges took an oath to follow the laws and constitution of the state of Mississippi and the United States and they are knowingly violating the law.
Ward has asked the state Supreme Court to prohibit Lowndes County chancery judges from banning firearms.
But the judges say: “The Legislature has every right to pass laws that in their wisdom are necessary and prudent for the State of Mississippi and its citizens. However, when such a law impedes or interferes with the provinces of the two other branches of government, it cannot be said to be within their constitutional right to do so without restriction. We, as judges, are the point persons in the delivery of dispute resolution. We are not casual observers, driven by a political need or want. We know best the impact on our sworn duty and in keeping with the oath we took. You cannot separate courthouses from courtrooms any more than you can separate the heart from the body.”
Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, who authored 2016 legislation to clarify the meaning of courtrooms, said it was done after some judges filed orders to include parking lots in prohibiting firearms.
The legislation, which died in a Senate committee in 2016, said a courtroom means the actual room in which judicial proceedings occur, including jury room, witness room, judge’s chamber, office housing the judge’s staff, or similar room, but doesn’t mean hallways, courtroom entrances, courthouse grounds, lobbies, corridors, or other areas within a courthouse which are generally open to the public for transaction of business outside of an active judicial proceeding.
Lowndes County chancery judges said in their order that “to allow a person to carry a concealed weapon to a courtroom door poses a threat that cannot be deterred before great bodily harm or death could be inflicted inside the courtroom.”
Ward said he asked the judges to rescind their order, but they dismissed his motion without giving him a hearing.
Ward then filed his petition with the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The court allowed briefs to be filed on behalf of interested parties stating their positions on the issue. The deadline should have been Aug. 7 to file briefs, but some judges from other parts of the state filed court briefs after the deadline in favor of the Lowndes County judges’ position, according to Ward.
The NRA filed a court brief prior to the deadline in favor of Ward’s position. Also, the attorney general’s office said in court papers that trial court judges do not have unilateral authority over general courthouse security.
“Judges retain their authority to restrict the carrying of firearms in the courtroom but not generally throughout courthouses,” Assistant Attorney General Doug Miracle said.
Miracle said judges have a role with respect to assessing courthouse security in particular cases as may be warranted by the facts and circumstances of a case.
Chancery Judge James Persons of Gulfport in his brief to the state Supreme Court, and joined by several chancery judges across the state, said he supports Second Amendment rights and owns firearms. But the brief goes on to say the Mississippi law allowing firearms in courthouses is unconstitutional as an unreasonable infringement on the inherent, core responsibility of the judiciary and on trial judges in particular, to ensure a safe, coercion-free and suitable environment.
Also, the brief argues that the law is an unreasonable infringement on the responsibility of a sheriff to maintain security in a courthouse.